Friday, June 14, 2019

Friday slowdown

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept    when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars    we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord    while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Living faithfully for Him - with commitment

Can we even imagine what it would be like?
Are we so far removed in today's modern world, that we can't fathom what it was like?
The Jewish people in the book of Ezra gave up their familiar surroundings, packed up, and walked across a thousand miles of desert to a land that had been devastated by war. This took commitment! As they walked along and prodded their pack animals to keep moving, all the while tasting the sand in their mouths, they stayed committed.
As they searched the horizon for an oasis to wet their parched lips, they stayed committed.
As they pulled up their blankets in the cold desert night and thought longingly of a comfortable pallet at home, they stayed committed. As the night air was pierced with the sounds of nocturnal animals scurrying around (a little too closely, thank you!) they held on tightly to that commitment.

No, it wasn't comfortable. It wasn't convenient. But they could not sing the songs of the Lord in Babylon.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept    when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars    we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord    while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem,    may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth    if I do not remember you,if I do not consider Jerusalem    my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6)
They kept longing for the city of Jerusalem, their home. They longed for the Temple where God's glory had been known. It made them willing to do whatever they had to, to see God enthroned among His people, in His holy place.

Not only can their commitment be seen in their trek to Jerusalem, but also in their plans for worship. The chapters we've read focus on the return of the priests, Levites, singers, and even doorkeepers of the Temple. Israel was organized for the purpose of worship. There is a proper place for spontaneity in worship, it's true, but there is also a need for order and for planning. Also, the priests who could not confirm their ancestry were prevented from serving at first. Holiness was an essential factor in their worship, as it should be in ours, too. To be living as the world lives all week long, and then pop into church for a few minutes of "worship" is not being true to God. All week long our lives should bring glory to Him through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Then on a day of worship, our gratitude and obedience overflow in true worship of our Father.

These lists of people in Ezra also show us the great variety of services performed by people; each had their duty to perform for the smooth functioning of the whole. Of course, some were more visible, and some were more behind the scenes, but each one was important. In our churches today, every believer has been given a spiritual gift to exercise in serving the Lord and showing glory to Him:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:10-11)
We've touched on this earlier, but the people also showed their commitment by giving. The first thing these people did was to go to the place where the house of the Lord had been and offer their gifts willingly to restore it. In the later verses of chapter two, we see that there were wealthy people and poor people who returned -- the record of the animals gives us clues. Some of the people returning had horses (like having a Cadillac at that time!) and some had donkeys, but many of them didn't own any animals. It says the people gave "according to their ability," and that implies that perhaps the wealthier people gave more, but that the poor gave as they could.
In our new covenant world, Paul instructs us to lay aside some of our assets and give as the Lord has prospered us:
Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. (I Corinthians 16:1-2)
We asked the question when we began this section of Ezra . . . why would this long list of names be in the Bible?  I believe the answer is to spur us on to growth in Christ-likeness.

First, let's make sure that we are God's children, His chosen people. Have we truly put our trust in the Lord, and is there evidence of that in our lives?
Secondly, are we experiencing (and accepting) God's discipline in our lives? All of this is to train us to share His holiness as we submit to Him.
Lastly, are we living faithfully to His covenant? Are we seeking to continue the heritage of godliness, to be a part of the community of believers, and committing to worship, service, and using our financial and spiritual gifts?
These responses to His faithfulness will mean that we are living in a right relationship with Him, and that we give Him the glory each day!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Living faithfully for Him - part of a community

This week, we are talking about our response to God's faithfulness. We've looked at the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem as a result of God's promises - we have seen that they had a sense of continuity. They worked hard to keep their heritage and the knowledge of God's promises an integral part of their lives. They wanted to remember His faithfulness in keeping His promises as part of His covenant with them.

We also saw that He has a covenant with us, the New Testament believers, as well. And our response should be similar to theirs: we should remember His promises and their fulfillment in our lives. We should teach them to our children and to other believers.

Another response we can see in the children of Israel who returned to Jerusalem is a sense of community. When Cyrus made the proclamation, and arranged for the temple items to be sent back, and told the Babylonians to contribute to the effort, the Jewish people didn't go back as individuals. They didn't each call their travel agent and make reservations individually. (Grin) They didn't intend to go back to the land, erect their houses and fences and have gated communities where they wouldn't know their neighbors. You wouldn't find them in the situation of going for years not knowing who their neighbors were, how many kids they had, or whether they were doing OK.
You see, they had a sense of community built on their common ancestry and their faith.  Yes, they would live in their respective towns. They would work hard to renovate and restore their homes. But Jerusalem would be the center of the nation. They would go there three times each year (that was the minimum, anyway) to worship God with their neighbors, friends, and countrymen and women. I guess you could say that they had a far less competitive society than what we live in.

Especially in America, we are individualistic. We are competitive. You can see it in our careers and financial plans. You can even see it in our driving habits! Many times we've been on the road and when I pull out in the "passing lane" to go around another car, can you believe it? They speed up! They don't want anyone to pass them! Instead of cooperating, they compete.
We can see it in our spiritual lives, too. When we read the Bible, we think far more often in individual terms, not corporate or congregational terms. What do we mean?
Well, when we read verses about the "new man" or "new self" we usually think about each person's new identity in Christ.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (II Corinthians 5:17)
But in some verses, Paul is talking about the church:
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew,circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:9-14)
Paul is urging all of us to have unity with other believers; he is saying that a sense of community with other Christians is part of that new life.
Again, there are verses that point to each believer's body as a temple of God:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (I Corinthians 6:19)
While others point to the entire church being God's temple, and that we are being built together into a dwelling of God's Spirit.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Praise the Lord for saving each of us individually! He conquered sin and death and redeemed each one of us!
Praise Him too, that He makes it possible for all of us (sometimes competitive, sometimes hard-to-love, sometimes kind and compassionate, sometimes unkind and too "busy" to care) to come together for His glory -- to come together as a church, as a community of believers. To be a place where His Spirit can dwell, and we can all give Him the glory for the unity and community that we share.
Yes, the Jewish people responded to His faithfulness by living faithfully in a community of those who worship Him. And we should do the same!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Verses that inspire

Let me say first that I'm not the reckless type.

Not the jump-out-of-the-airplane or the climb-this sheer-rock-face type.

But a recent stop to "smell the roses" made me think of some verses from the Psalms......

I enjoy stopping on our travels to see small gems, places tucked away that are interesting for one reason or another. Cars and trucks whiz by and very few stop to see what it is that makes this spot interesting.
A small road-side pull off offered a view of a lovely (albeit small) waterfall, and I prevailed upon my long-suffering husband to stop. We carefully walked up the trail to catch some breathtaking views of the water cascading across the boulders into the small pond below. It would have been a much smaller waterfall usually, but the recent rains had caused a larger volume of water to flow through. There were slippery spots in the trail; the rain had just stopped an hour or so earlier. We were careful where we placed our steps, and enjoyed seeing the work of God's hands.

It got me to thinking; I remembered some wonderful and inspiring verses:
He will not let your foot slip—    he who watches over you will not slumber; (Psalm 121:3)
he has preserved our lives    and kept our feet from slipping. (Psalm 66:9)
Are we feeling alone? Are we lonely?
Our Savior loves and cares for us, and is always with us . . .
 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
Has a verse or passage inspired you recently?
Leave us a comment to help others along the way.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Responding to God's faithfulness

Last week, we focused on God's faithfulness; we were reminded once again that He keeps His promises. We can rely upon Him to be faithful and true to His Word.

How should we respond to His faithfulness? When He graciously gives us the opportunity to begin again after we have sinned and repented?
Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is to rejoice!
And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. (Deuteronomy 16:11)
But let all who take refuge in you be glad;    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,    that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (Psalm 5:11)
But may all who seek you    rejoice and be glad in you;may those who long for your saving help always say,    “The Lord is great!” (Psalm 40:16)
The second thing that comes to mind as our response to His faithfulness is obedience.
The Jewish people had their covenant to obey, and we have our New Testament covenant, as well:
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15)
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)
It's interesting to draw a parallel between the continuity seen in this second chapter of Ezra, and continuity in the world we live in, today. Today there are many people that enjoy researching their heritage. Sites and services tout their ability to map and detail our ancestry from our DNA. People are surprised sometimes to find that their heritage leads back to countries they'd not known about, or thought about.
For the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem, it was important that they remember their historical continuity with the Jewish community before the exile to Babylon. Even more important was for them to know that this small community that trekked back, though they were weak compared to the surrounding tribes and nations, were continuing God's plan for Israel. It was now their responsibility to carry on God's purposes. It was their task to hand off to their children and their grandchildren a vision of God's purposes and of their identity as His people. For them, it was important to be able to say, "I'm the son (or daughter) of this person, and the grandson of that person, etc." and go back for many, many generations. And to be able to say that one was dwelling on the same inherited land? What a picture of God's faithfulness!

But continuity is perhaps a foreign concept to many today. We don't grow up and live and have kids in the same towns, the same houses, that our grandparents did before us. Instead, we are a much more mobile society, and we change homes and geographic locations often. Family ties don't have as much weight when making life decisions, as in the past.
However, there is great value in the effort to preserve continuity in life. It can be done through committed relationships with family and friends. It can also be done by handing down items that have meaning and memories attached to them. Telling and retelling the stories of those who touched and used those items can foster a feeling of family, and of continuity.
So, too, we should make the efforts required to foster continuity based on God's Word. We can make sure that we hand off His truth. We can work to preserve it in our families from generation to generation.
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.  (Deuteronomy 4:9)
In this way, we will live faithful to His covenant; we will be responding to His faithfulness to us.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Friday slowdown - UPDATED

Truly our God is faithful . . . this week we have studied His faithfulness to His people. He is faithful still, in our world today.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

He disciplines and He restores

We've been studying this week the concept of God's chosen people; His children, so to speak. We've seen that He has plans for His people, just as we humans make some plans for our children. We want the best for them, so we encourage them to work hard, to do their best, to be the best and the most loving and giving, godly children that they can be.

God wants the best for His people, as well. At this point in history, it was the Jewish people, and the Babylonian captivity was His faithful discipline of His erring children. He had warned (many, many times!) them that He would scatter them if they persisted in disobedience. Did they change? Well, not long term. God used the Babylonians to discipline the Jewish people and also to show them the emptiness, the uselessness of idolatry.
“Look at the nations and watch —    and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days    that you would not believe,    even if you were told.  I am raising up the Babylonians,
    that ruthless and impetuous people,who sweep across the whole earth    to seize dwellings not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people;    they are a law to themselves (Habakkuk 1:5-7a)
Israel had not paid attention to the pleading of the prophets. God expelled them from their land to teach them the importance of obedience to His Word.
Some people may point to this and say that they don't like this "side" of God. They like the loving and compassionate God, the Friend, the Comforter, the Guide. They lack the understanding that God is also a holy God, and will not tolerate idolatry. As a loving Father, He will discipline His children.
If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  (Hebrews 12:8)
So, if we claim to be Christians, and we live in deliberate, willful disobedience to God, and there are no negative consequences.....perhaps we're in bigger trouble than we realize. Are we then true Christians? We must search our hearts and ask God, because one mark of a true child of God is that when we sin, God is faithful to discipline us.

We can be joyous, though, that God does not discipline us to make us pay for our sins.
But wait, you may be thinking, that's what you just told us would happen.
Christ paid for our sins on the cross.
When God disciplines us, it's so we may share His holiness.
Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  (Hebrews 12:9-10)
He disciplines us so that we can share in that perfect relationship of fellowship with Him. In other words, discipline has one major goal -- to restore us to fellowship!

So, restoration is His goal, and it will happen in His timing: when the seventy years were up, God restored His people to the promised land. These first two chapters of Ezra are a detailed record of God's faithfulness to His children. He knows just how long we need to be under discipline, and He is able to restore us when the time is right.

Notice that God did not wipe away all of the consequences of the nation's sins when He restored the people. What do we mean by that? Well, they didn't come back to lovely cities with beautiful homes or to cultivated fields, vineyards, and olive groves just waiting to be harvested. What they came back to was piles of rubble. They came back to fields overgrown with weeds. It was going to take a lot of time and a lot of hard work to rebuild the cities and towns, and to get those agricultural areas back into shape, and producing.
When God forgives our sins and restores us spiritually, He may not remove the consequences of what we did to deserve discipline. If we destroyed our family through the sins of infidelity or anger, we might not get our family back when He restores our relationship to Himself. If we destroyed our finances through careless spending or through gambling, our repentance doesn't mean the debts will all evaporate away.
And here's another thing: those returning to the land were the children and the grandchildren of those who brought on this captivity. It was the older folks' sins that caused the discipline, and the younger folks were the ones that needed to do the hard work of restoration. Those returning could have complained bitterly, "It's not fair! We have to rebuild what was destroyed because of our sinful parents and grandparents!" But that kind of heart reveals rebellion to our Lord. It may be against what we feel at first, but our attitude should really be submission to the Lord in all of His dealings toward us. After all, we should be grateful that He doesn't give us what we truly deserve!
 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point,he is guilty of all. (James 2:10)
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,    Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3)
In fact, He gives us mercy, instead of what we deserve:
Let the wicked forsake his way,And the unrighteous man his thoughts;Let him return to the Lord,And He will have mercy on him;And to our God,For He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:7)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1)
If we were to write a caption for the first two chapters of Ezra, it would have to include God's faithfulness to plan for, to discipline, and to restore His children . . . next we will study the people's response to His faithfulness!